Mo. police return photographer’s camera disk, seized as evidence

MISSOURI — City police have returned a student photographer’s digital camera disk, which they seized without a search warrant because they said the disk contained crucial evidence.

The disk contained an image of individuals stealing a flag at a campaign rally held at Southwest Missouri State University campus in Springfield.

A Springfield police detective returned the disk to the Standard on Oct. 5, two days after it was confiscated at the rally on Sunday, Oct. 3.

Standard photo editor Amanda Stratford was on her way home after photographing a campaign rally for Bill Sczepanski, a candidate for state legislature. Sczepanski was talking to campus police about a stolen flag. Stratford approached the police and told them she had an image of the perpetrators. Campus police told Stratford she would have wait for Springfield police to arrive or leave the camera behind, she said.

“If you keep my camera, you’re keeping me,” Stratford said she thought at the time.

The police seized the disk per a recommendation from a Springfield assistant district attorney and obtained a search warrant while holding the disk as evidence, said Standard adviser Wanda Brandon.

Springfield police said they had legitimate reasons for seizing the disk. “There [were] actual photographs of the individuals that were taking the flag, so it was evidence that would support prosecution of these individuals,” Springfield Chief of Police Lynn Rowe said.

“They clearly do not know about the First Amendment or the Federal Privacy Protection Act,” Brandon said.

The Federal Privacy Protection Act, enacted in 1980, prohibits state and local law enforcement officers from performing searches or seizing materials from reporters, broadcasters and authors. The act does warrant some exceptions; if police believe the individual will destroy the evidence or if the police believe that the individual in possession of the evidence committed the crime, the limitations of the law do not apply.

University of Missouri media law Professor Sandra Davidson said none of the exceptions would be arguable in this case. In a case like this the police should have asked a judge to issue a subpoena for the photograph, Davidson said.

“There’s often unnecessary tension between the police and reporters,” she said. “It’s just up to the police now to obey the law.”

Stratford said she was not opposed to giving the police the photograph, but was concerned with the way the police went about seizing the evidence.

“The issue isn’t whether we have it or [they have it], it’s how they took it,” she said.

Springfield District Attorney Darrell Moore urged the police to return the disk on Tuesday.

The Standard has posted the image on its Web site. Stratford said the staff is still debating whether to give a copy to the police.

The issue has made Stratford consider the importance of laws such as the Federal Privacy Protection, she said.

“It’s something the police need to be aware of,” Stratford said.

Brandon said the situation would have been different if the police had asked, rather than demanded, that Stratford cooperate.

“They didn’t send an apology,” she said. “We just didn’t like the way we were manhandled.”